The Trojan Horse of Child Care

by Allan Carlson, Ph.D.

For Legatus--Chicago Chapter Park Ridge, IL January 29, 1998

Seventy-eight years ago, in 1920, the great English Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton wrote, concerning the "child care" issue of his day:

If people cannot mind their own business, it cannot possibly be more economical to pay them to mind each other's business, and still less to mind each other's babies....Ultimately, we are arguing that a woman should not be a mother to her own baby, but a nursemaid to somebody else's baby. But it will not work, even on paper. We cannot all live by taking in each other's washing, especially in the form of pinafores....

Jump ahead now, to the White House Conference on Child Care, held this last October, under the auspicious joint chairmanship of Hillary Clinton, President Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore. The most wildly applauded line by the most enthusiastically-received speaker--(California child care consultant Patty Siegel)--was this: (and I quote) "The child care crisis is so acute that child care workers in many areas of the country are unable to find adequate day care for their own children."

Alas, Chesterton's little joke, his reductio ad absurdum of 1920, has in the Age of Clinton become white hot truth: the core of the crisis-of-the-day.

I was one of only two conservatives who managed to gain an invitation to this White House Conference on Child Care. In many ways, it was like entering a carnival house-of-mirrors, a place where all is not as it seems, where reality becomes distorted, sometimes in grotesque ways.

For example, during a day-long White House meeting devoted to the care of children, the word "mother" was almost never uttered. One telling exception came in a special film prepared for the event, where a child says of his day care worker: "Martine was almost like a mother to me." Otherwise, the concept of "mothering" was considered the equivalent of profanity. Instead, the term of choice was "care giver." While the generic term, "parent," would occasionally creep in, it would usually be for uses such as: "parents want quality child care."

More bizarre, however, was the elevation of "safe, affordable, and accessible" child care into issues of economic competitiveness and national security. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, serving on the first White House panel, credited "the solid program of President Clinton" for five years of economic progress: the number of jobs was up; inflation was flat. He went on: "My great concern is that this prosperity will mask the challenges that we face. A key question is: how do we create an environment that will increase productivity? The answer is that we need a flexible and mobile workforce to which everyone can contribute to the limits of their [sic] ability." And this workforce, he stressed, needs federally subsidized child care.

Where only 30% of mothers with children under age six worked in 1970, the figure was 62% in 1997, and Rubin praised several model companies that counted 94 percent of new mothers returning to work. Interestingly, he acknowledged that the market was dysfunctional in spreading corporate child care. Its future growth, he said, required a "public-private partnership" (code words for federal subsidy) and a "massive effort to improve citizen knowledge about what we need to do to succeed in the global economy."

Major General John G. Meyer, Jr., recently Commanding General of the U.S. Army's Community and Family Support Center, then gave a glowing account of military success in the nursery. "Child care is critical to the Department of Defense's bottom line," he declared, sitting alongside the First Lady. "Supporting the care and development of children is a responsibility the military readily assumes in exchange for the loyalty of their parents in uniform." After a massive increase in spending on child care and development programs, the Department of Defense now cares each day for over 200,000 children in some 800 centers, making the Pentagon the nation's largest child care provider. Last April, President Clinton ordered the military services to proselytize actively in the civilian world, spreading the new Pentagon gospel of "commitment, standards, and funding" for adequate child care.

What's going on? Why do new mothers seem to choose day care over home care? Why are businesses under mounting pressure to move into the child care business? Why is a 'downsizing' military shifting resources from maintaining "combat divisions" and building "warships" into the construction of child care centers?

At one level, the answer is economic: simple family necessity. There is truth to the lament, frequently heard, that "one income is not enough to support a family these days." It is also true that this was not always so.

Before 1970, we can show that a "family wage" system prevailed in the United States, where the common assumption was "one principle wage per family." This was not the result of law, but rather of custom and a kind of collective common sense, where the higher paying jobs tended to be held by husbands and fathers. This enabled mothers to stay home when the children were young, without major economic sacrifice. The paid labor of wives was deemed supplemental, and most Americans instinctively understood that normal family life rested in part on this arrangement. Indeed, polls from the early 1960's found over 80 percent of Americans giving their support to this system. As late as 1965, even the Lyndon Johnson administration would lecture the United Nations about "the basic [American] legal principle that places on the husband the primary responsibility for support of his wife and family with secondary liability devolving on the wife."

This concept, I should note, enjoyed the full affirmation of Catholic social teaching. As Pope Pius XI explained in his 1931 encyclical, QUADRAGESINO ANNO: "Every effort must...be made" to ensure "that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately."

But the American "family wage" would not survive the tumultuous 1960's. A principle cause was the addition of the word "sex" to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ironically, this amendment was first proposed by Southern Dixiecrats, or segregationists, as a last-ditch "killer amendment" to the Civil Rights bill, Title VII of which was to help black men gain better jobs and become better fathers. But through a huge miscalculation, their mischievous proposal won adoption and became law.

By 1970, Title VII had been transformed by feminist ideologues into a weapon to tear down the "family wage" in America. While overall household incomes would rise over the next quarter century, the increase came solely from higher earnings for working wives and mothers. Adjusted for inflation, the median income of men, ages 15 and above, working full time, fell from $37,200 in 1973 to only $32,000 in 1996, a decline of 15 percent. Housing and mortgage markets also adjusted to this new "two earner" reality. Wives earnings had become much more critical to family well being than was true before 1970, turning child care into a real issue.

All the same, more than legislative accident lay behind this change. Back in the 1930's, the Swedish radical Alva Myrdal had begun to craft a new ideology, one fusing together the socialist doctrine of a massive welfare state to a feminist vision of liberation. The common denominators were the elimination of marriage as an economic institution, the transformation of the home into a mere manager of state benefits, and the full-time, life-long employment of women, particularly in the burgeoning state sector. The natural bonds of mothers to babies--the facts that only women can bear children and nurse them with mother's milk--were big obstacles to this vision. But the solution was obvious: substitute child care, subsidized by the growing welfare state.

It was a fledgling American version of this ideology that the Dixiecrats unwittingly aided and abetted in the 1964 Civil Rights debate. But the new American feminism quickly matured and radicalized, with the home and marriage as their general targets, and with the maternal care of babies and toddlers as the specific focus of assault.

In 1971, Congress approved a massive new "child development" entitlement that would have put virtually all U.S. children in federally run "health, education, and social service centers." President Richard Nixon, to his everlasting credit, vetoed the measure, correctly arguing that the bill would have committed "the vast moral authority of the federal government to the side of communal approaches to childrearing as against a family centered approach." However, the very same year, Congress approved and the President signed a companion measure increasing the income-tax deduction allowed for the purchase of commercial child care, shifting the incentives in favor of Social parenting.

More would come. In 1974, Congress added Title XX to the Social Security Act, creating a Federal child care system that soon embraced over one million children. Two years later, Congress altered and expanded the tax preferences given to commercial child care, creating what one Senator correctly called "a $800 subsidy" per household for non-parental childrearing. In 1984, Congress raised the maximum figure to $1,440. The push for expanded Federal subsidy of non-parental care appeared again in the early 1990's--in the so-called ABC bill--but was just barely beaten back.

In 1997 and 1998, though, Mrs. Clinton is guiding a new campaign, one that deserves recognition for its sweep and clever packaging. It began last Spring, with a White House conference on brain development in infants and children. Conferees focused on a wealth of new information showing on the vital need of newborns, infants, and toddlers for the touch, sounds, games, and interaction provided by a reliable giver of care. Indeed, the very physical and chemical growth of the brain depends on this intensive, fulltime care. Revealingly, though, the White House conferees ignored the equally compelling evidence that breastmilk--human milk--also contributes greatly (and independently) to brain development in ways that artificial formulas cannot reproduce. This data was ignored for the obvious reason that it points to the biological "mother" as the natural, indeed irreplacable, giver of care in those early years. Mrs. Clinton's project--just as Alva Myrdal's project in Sweden 60 years earlier--is not about what is good for little children; it is about replacing mothers with caregivers paid by and beholden to the state.

This is socialism, my friends, a direct assault on the integrity and independence of families, who through all time have been the only reliable rivals to governmental power. The current Federal system of subsidies and tax preferences for substitute child care directly suppresses families and works to eliminate mother care. The child care plans announced by Mr. Clinton earlier this month simply expand the direct federal assault on home and family.

But some, such as Mr. Rubin, will still ask: Don't these programs make good economic sense? Don't they help sustain a strong economy and make us more competitive?

Alas, at fundamental, and long term levels, quite the opposite is true. Mrs. Clinton and friends would have you believe that mothers-at-home do little more than lounge about, watching soap operas and eating bon-bons. In fact, as any real person knows, the mother-at-home is deeply involved in a vast array of productive economic tasks: child care, early childhood development, primary moral and practical education, food preservation and preparation, gardening, primary pediatric care, and home maintenance, just to start the list. The major difference is that the mother-at-home performs these tasks outside a cash nexus: she receives no monetary salary; and, significantly, she pays no tax (which may be another reason why she is no longer honored by the state). The gains from her labors are shared freely with her husband and children, and the family as an institution grows stronger through her commitment to "home production," to homemaking.

Substitute child care, in contrast, depends on state subsidy. "Safe, affordable, accessible quality care"--as the Clintonian mantra has it--is very expensive: adequate infant care costs $12,000 a year; adequate toddler care will cost $6,000 to $8,000 a year. When these sums are added to the other costs of employment--marginal taxes, another car, wardrobe, more frequent restaurant visits, and, most significantly, foregone "home production"--the gains for sending mother into the workplace sharply diminish, even in a society where the "family wage" has vanished. State subsidy is necessary, at the margins, to make this system of weakened families and communal child care hold together. G.K. Chesterton was right: There is no economic sense in taking in each other's small children. Ideology and politics, not the marketplace, drives our child care debate. Subsidized non-parental care of infants and toddlers has become in 1998 the Trojan Horse for building the complete welfare state.

So let us shake free from the cloud of deceit that swirls about this issue, and ask: What do babies really need?

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, gives clear answers in his book, THE GROWTH OF THE MIND: THE ENDANGERED ORIGINS OF INTELLIGENCE. Briefly, all children need six things for their brain, personality, and emotions to develop properly during their critical first three years:

  1. an ongoing, loving, and intimate relationship--taking years, not months--with one (or at most two) caregivers in order to develop caring, empathy, and trust;

  2. sights, sounds, touches and other sensations tailored to the baby's unique nervous system in order to foster learning, language, awareness, attention, and self-control;

  3. An "emotional dialogue" between an adult and baby made up of long sequences of back-and-forth smiles, smirks, sounds, body motion, and so on. This interaction fosters a sense of self, logic, communication skills, and purposefulness.

  4. Discussions without words, or long dialogues with gestures to solve problems, which foster thinking and social skills.

  5. Shared use of creative ideas through pretend play between a caregiver and a child and the negotiation of basic needs ("Juice!"), which foster language and creativity;

  6. and The logical use of ideas through a caregiver asking a child's opinion and through mini-debates, which develop logical thinking, planning, and a readiness for reading and math.

These are not interactions that can occur during an hour of "quality time" at night. During the critical first three years of life, children need these experiences during half or more of their waking hours.

Switching disciplines and terminology, these tasks must also be seen as steps in the development of what economists call human capital. Here--in the intellectual, emotional, and moral quality of the young--is where the real test of future competitiveness lies.

Significantly, Dr. Greenspan shows that the very nature of child care centers--even excellent and expensive ones--deny three of these critical six needs (ongoing intimate relationships; lengthy emotional dialogues; and long problem-solving discussions with gestures). If your concern is the development of babies and toddlers into healthy, capable, well-adjusted, and productive adults, substitute child care is not only inferior, but damaging to human potential, both economic and personal.

To this we need add the overwhelming evidence that commercial child care also poses a special threat to the physical and mental health of children. Children in day care are at nearly 100 percent increased risk for contracting serious, life-threatening diseases such as hemophilus influenza and meningitis. They are four-and-a-half times more likely than home-cared children to contract infections, and nearly three times as likely to need hospitalization. Children in commercial care are also much more at risk of contracting upper respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal disorders, ear infections, mycobacterium tuberculosis, salmonella, Herpes simplex, rubella, hepatitus A & B, scabies, dwarf tapeworm, pinworms, and diarrhea. Indeed, a recent special issue of the journal PEDIATRICS ANNALS, was devoted to day care diseases, and carried a lead editorial entitled: "Day Care, Day Care: May Day! May Day!" It chronicled the enormous public health problems, a virtual epidemic of childhood disease, caused by this national turn to substitute child care.

There is still another vast body of research documenting that children in commerical child care bear significantly higher risks for social and emotional disruption: from attachment problems, to heightened aggression, to lower responsiveness, to poorer subsequent performance in school.

Indeed, the honest research evidence is overwhelming: Non-parental child care is inferior to at-home care. While it can stand as a necessary option for families in special circumstances, there can be no rational justification for giving substitute care the preferred political status it now enjoys. Indeed, it bears intellectual, medical, and psychological risks that would simply be unacceptable if the issue were anything else.

For nearly 30 years, our Federal government has actively subsidized and promoted a program that is bad for children, bad for families, and bad for the economic future of the nation. We can understand this only if we recognize the ideological agenda behind this campaign: the fusion of radical feminism to socialism through the device of the modern welfare state. It was ideology not economic necessity, that brought us to this place. It was ideology, not economics, that distorted the labor market in a manner that places new pressures on young families, pushing them to choose non-parental care. Our prospects for finding a better path in the future must begin with that recognition.

From there, we can chart an alternate agenda that would end this unholy Federal war on the family, and create a system truly based on freedom of choice. It would include:

  • First, an end to the tax preferences given to commercial, non-parental child care. For example, the current Dependent Care Tax Credit could either be scrapped, or replaced by a universal early childhood tax credit, valued at $700 per child, and available to all taxpaying parents with children through age five, regardless of how parents choose to care for their children;

  • Second, greater freedom for proven methods of reconciling paid labor and home life, such as part-time work, flex-time, telecommuting, and at-home businesses;and

  • Third, an end to the Federal campaign of sex-role or gender-role engineering, which rests on historical lies and wars against those common sense cultural arrangements, such as the "family wage," that have successfully sustained the family within a modern economy.

The current Pontiff, John Paul II, has written: "We are all called to promote an environment favorable to the family, and, therefore, to motherhood and fatherhood, an environment where, increasingly, the optimal conditions can be found...[so] that the family can develop its own riches: fidelity, fecundity, and intimacy enriched by an openness to others."

Fidelity, fecundity, and intimacy: These are, indeed, riches bearing their own inestimable value, ones threatened by the current direction of our nation's public policy. It is time to choose a different path, the path we might call the family way, so that our children and grandchildren might indeed grow to their full potential as children of God.